Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other MCSO officials face a new lawsuit by a deputy sergeant whose discovery of 1,500 IDs set off a chain of events that bolstered Arpaio's criminal-contempt charge.EXPAND
Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other MCSO officials face a new lawsuit by a deputy sergeant whose discovery of 1,500 IDs set off a chain of events that bolstered Arpaio's criminal-contempt charge.
Ray Stern

Arpaio, MCSO Sued by Sergeant Whose Cache of 1,500 IDs Led to Contempt Charges

A Maricopa County Sheriff's Office sergeant whose possession of 1,500 IDs helped spur contempt charges against ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his staff claims in a fresh lawsuit that the flap damaged his career.

The discovery of the IDs in July 2015 by Sergeant Jonathan Knapp, and how that discovery was subsequently handled, became a major flashpoint in the long-running Melendres v. Arpaio case.

U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow cited the mishandling of the IDs as one of several reasons he referred Arpaio, former Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Captain Steve Bailey, and private attorney Michele Iafrate for criminal contempt charges. The Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office moved forward with the charges in October.

Arpaio, Sheridan, and two other former MCSO officials were already found guilty by Snow last year of civil contempt.

Another federal judge, Susan Bolton, dropped all of the criminal contempt charges related to IDs in December 2016, meaning that Sheridan, Iafrate, and Bailey don't currently face any criminal charges.

But Arpaio — who voters tossed out of office last year — remains on the hook for contempt for other alleged misdeeds. His bench trial is scheduled to begin on June 26.

And now the ex-sheriff has another lawsuit to worry about.

Knapp, in the federal complaint he filed last week, claims that after he testified truthfully about the IDs, his superiors passed him up for a promotion, denied him a raise, and used his desire to run for sheriff in Oregon for 2018 against him.

His recent troubles at work "were all pre-textual for the real reason: That Sergeant Knapp had testified truthfully as witness in connection to the Melendres case, and his testimony had caused embarrassment to the MCSO," his lawsuit states.

Knapp is suing Maricopa County, current Sheriff Paul Penzone (in his official capacity), former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and a host of current or former MCSO officials including Sheridan, Dave Trombi, Paul Chagolla, and Steve Bailey.

Knapp claims retaliation, violation of due process, conspiracy to interfere with his civil rights, and failure to prevent the retaliation.

The complaint offers details about his grievances, but also explains — from Knapp's point of view — how the IDs ended up part of Arpaio's contempt proceedings.

Knapp, who has worked for the Sheriff's Office since 1999, didn't return calls from the Phoenix New Times. His Scottsdale lawyer, Joshua Carden, gave some brief statements but said Knapp won't be available for an interview.

"It's as strong a retaliation case as I've seen," said Carden, who typically handles employment litigation.

The case actually began in 2007, when civil-rights groups sued the Sheriff's Office over Arpaio's homespun immigration-enforcement tactics.

The groups aimed to prove — and later did prove — that people including Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, an undocumented day laborer, were hassled by Arpaio's troops simply because they appeared to be Hispanic.

Judge Snow agreed in 2013 that the Sheriff's Office had discriminated against Hispanics and ordered a federal monitor to oversee Arpaio's operations. A parallel investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that Arpaio was responsible for one of the worst cases of racial discrimination by a law enforcement agency in American history.

One deputy who helped drive the perception that the MCSO was a racist cop shop was Detective Ramon Charley Armendariz, a drug-using, aggressive member of Arpaio's infamous Human Smuggling Unit who committed suicide in 2014 after barricading himself in his home.

Evidence found during a probe of his death included more than 100 state-issued IDs that Armendariz had apparently collected as trophies during some of his unprofessional traffic stops.

Snow later told Arpaio's agency to locate any other caches of IDs that could be related to the discrimination case and ongoing investigation. Searches for IDs were held in 2014 and 2015, and the office instructed employees to preserve such evidence.

As previous news reports have detailed, Knapp claims that he suddenly discovered that he had about 1,500 IDs in his office in early July 2015 and put them on track to be destroyed.

Supervisors learned of the IDs by July 7, 2015,and Knapp was told to explain the situation in writing to the internal-affairs department.

Iafrate, in particular, was "very upset" about the discovery of the documents and what they might mean to the case, Snow's May 2016 contempt order states.

The next day, internal affairs began an investigation into the IDs. At the same time, Chief Deputy Sheridan and Iafrate huddled on the question of whether to disclose the existence of the IDs to the federal monitor, the 2016 order states. Sheridan then "'suspended' the Knapp IDs investigation in a bad-faith attempt to avoid his obligation under the court’s orders to disclose" their existence."

Sheridan's action based on Knapp's discovery soon would come back to haunt him, Iafrate, and others.

In his complaint, Knapp argues that his role in the debacle over the IDs should not have been controversial, much less a reason for being treated like a pariah at the agency.

After he was promoted to sergeant, Knapp received federal immigration cross-training as part of the feds' controversial 287(g) program, which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law in limited circumstances.

He was also trained in recognizing fraudulent IDs. Knapp later received approval to prepare to teach a class to deputies on the subject, the lawsuit states.

To help him teach the class, he claims, he obtained a total of 1,459 IDs in 2006 and 2007 for the deputy students to examine. Some IDs were genuine, some were fake. They had all been reportedly marked for destruction by the agency's property and evidence division. Knapp kept them in binders in his office.

However, Knapp was never authorized to begin the class. After the federal government canceled the MCSO's 287(g) status in 2009, Knapp forgot about the IDs, the lawsuit states.

In April 2015, the Sheriff's Office issued a bulletin to employees "regarding the handling of newly seized IDs." But Knapp claims the bulletin did not make him think of the IDs, since they were not "newly seized."

Around that time, though, Knapp was cleaning his office and found the binders full of IDs.

"Being generally aware of the Ortega Melendres lawsuit, he realized that he needed to return the IDs to MCSO," records state.

Knapp contacted MCSO's property and evidence department and was told to fill out a form and submit the IDs to the department. On July 7, 2015, two or three months after he found the IDs, Knapp deposited the form and IDs in an evidence locker.

The process stopped going smoothly for Knapp at that point. An evidence technician "refused to take the IDs" and reported them to superiors.

Knapp's supervisor and a sergeant with the internal-affairs department immediately contacted Knapp and began asking him questions about the IDs.

The next day, Captain Steve Bailey informed Knapp in writing that he was under investigation for violating MCSO policy on evidence handling.

As mentioned, Sheridan halted that investigation. A week later, on July 17, Sheridan, Bailey, and other MCSO officials participated in a "rehearsal" for an upcoming meeting with the federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, and his staff. The Sheriff's Office employees and attorney Iafrate went over what to say if the monitor asked them whether any new IDs had been discovered.

According to Snow's May 2016 order, Iafrate instructed the group not to admit to the existence of the IDs until she could finish researching whether the "Knapp IDs," as they were deemed, needed to be disclosed.

In the meeting with the federal monitor in mid-July 2015, Captain Steve Bailey was asked point-blank if there were more IDs, or an investigation ongoing into found IDs.

Bailey would later testify that he glanced over at Iafrate, who told him "no." Bailey repeated that answer to the monitor.

Yet Warshaw already knew that was the wrong answer, because another deputy had recently informed the monitor of the existence of the Knapp IDs.

After Warshaw told Judge Snow about the apparent intent of the Sheriff's Office to hide evidence, Snow ordered federal marshals to raid the Sheriff's Office and seize the IDs, along with several hard drives believed to contain more evidence for the Melendres case.

The "Knapp IDs" situation became one of the key findings that Snow noted in a 162-page report last year explaining why Arpaio and other Sheriff's Office officials had committed criminal contempt.

Warshaw interviewed Knapp about the IDs following the marshal's raid and seizure of the IDs at the Sheriff's Office. Two months later, Knapp was deposed in the Melendres case.

Snow used Knapp's testimony to bolster his contempt findings, the lawsuit notes.

And that's when Knapp's career took a nosedive.

Knapp had applied for a promotion to lieutenant in March 2015 and placed seventh out of 30 applicants. Over the course of a year, the agency ultimately promoted about half of the applicants — but not Knapp. Deputy Chief Trombi called him personally to let him know he was being skipped over for a promotion, Knapp claims.

Knapp was also denied a 2.49 percent pay raise that all MCSO employees received starting in July 2016.

"MCSO's excuses for the failure to promote Sergeant Knapp and the failure to grant the pay raise were the 'open IA investigation'" that had been launched the previous year, the lawsuit states.

Yet the investigation should have been completed within 180 days, according to MCSO rules.

Knapp filed a grievance with the county in July 2016. A few months later, a supervisor informed him that he would receive a written reprimand for mishandling the IDs.

Knapp appealed the reprimand to the county and filed additional grievances with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice.

In January, the MCSO began a new investigation into Knapp related to his planned campaign for sheriff of Josephine County, Oregon, for the 2018 election.

The Sheriff's Office accused Knapp of violating a policy that forbids MCSO officers from running or serving in public office. Knapp's attorney, Joshua Carden, said that the policy is not very clear — that is, it may not apply to people running for office in other states.

In any case, Knapp has a campaign website but otherwise has taken no steps to run for office, such as filling out candidate paperwork in Oregon, Carden said. Knapp is slated to retire from the MCSO later this year, and the Josephine County campaign and election will take place after that, he said.

In his lawsuit, Knapp claims that this new investigation was designed to justify denying him future promotions or raises.

The MCSO dropped that investigation in early February, notifying Knapp that no allegation was sustained and no discipline would be forthcoming.

According to his lawsuit, the MCSO's actions against Knapp — such as the denial of a raise — are ongoing "and will likely continue unless injunctive relief is granted by the court."

Yet he could have been promoted and given a raise even while under investigation, Carden said.

During testimony in the Melendres trial, MCSO officials specifically stated that someone under investigation could still be promoted, he said.

The lawsuit calls for Knapp to be paid punitive damages — in addition to other awards — because the Sheriff's Office defendants, with the exception of Penzone, "was due to evil motive or intent" and "involved reckless or callous indifference" to Knapp's civil rights, the lawsuit states.

Knapp also wants the court to declare that the retaliation happened and that his right to due process was violated.

The actual content of the 1,500 "Knapp IDs" never became an issue. In theory, some of the IDs could have been collected illegally from Hispanics during improper traffic stops. Snow's 2016 report indicates that about 30 percent of the IDs had belonged to Hispanic people and therefore were germane to the case.

But as John Masterson, a lawyer hired by the Sheriff's Office, discussed in testimony in 2015, no evidence had surfaced showing that even one of the IDs had been seized illegally.

If Knapp is correct, the flap over the 1,500 IDs appears to be a good example of how a cover-up can be worse than an alleged crime.

Last week, Arpaio lost his latest bid for a jury trial in the criminal contempt case that now involves only him.

It remains to be seen if his defense team succeeds in delaying the bench trial, following last month's withdrawal of Arpaio's lead counsel, Mel McDonald.

On Monday, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to a new, $26 million expenditure needed to comply with the provisions of the 2013 Melendres ruling.

The case has already cost the county about $66 million.

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